50 Phenoms: How Health Care Heroes Stepped Up During COVID-19

James Hurt gets to his concierge post at UPMC Mercy at 4:30 a.m., six days a week, ready to meet everyone who comes through the doors. Dressed in a colorfully matching outfit, he greets visitors with a smile and a kind word.

Housekeeping supervisor Nancy O’Leary has worked at Sherwood Oaks, part of UPMC Senior Communities, for more than three decades. Some of the current residents are the children of men and women who lived there when Nancy was a younger employee.

In-home physical therapists Dana Grimm and Jacob Waudby travel throughout western Pennsylvania. While most of their work focuses on helping patients build back their strength, balance, and endurance after a procedure or hospital stay, Dana and Jacob also assist them with their personal needs.

Beginning in March 2020, however, all those jobs began to change. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused upheaval in western Pennsylvania, the United States, and the world. Many people felt uncertain or fearful. The pandemic forced a change in people’s daily lives.

One thing didn’t change: the commitment of James, Nancy, Dana, and Jacob to come to work every day. They remained dedicated to doing their jobs and helping people in need, even as they felt uncertain or fearful themselves.

“We had to step up to the plate,” James says. “Of course, it was scary. I was scared and nervous as well, but somebody had to be there to let these people know when they come through my gate, when they come across my threshold, we’re going to be going through this together.”

The health care field consists of different people working different jobs. And throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, all of them — like James, Nancy, Dana, and Jacob — continued to come to work each day, determined to help people.

“Everybody stepped up,” Nancy says. “We stayed at our stations. We did our jobs. We didn’t have everybody calling off. Everybody came to work, did their job to try to keep everybody safe there.”

UPMC is full of health care heroes who continue to provide critical care even when times are most difficult. The following stories of James, Dana, Jacob, and Nancy highlight the will and determination of thousands of UPMC employees.

Dana and Jacob: ‘The Little Things Meant a Lot More’

Dana and Jacob both began working at UPMC more than a decade ago. About eight years ago, Dana began working in home health care. Jacob began working in home health care two years later.

As part of their job, Dana and Jacob travel to homes throughout western Pennsylvania to help patients who are elderly or who are working their way back from surgical procedures. They each go to several homes a day to help their patients with strength, balance, mobility, endurance, and more.

They also help their patients with other tasks around the home — shoveling snow, bringing in the paper, helping with Netflix passwords, even making grilled cheese sandwiches.

“You’re establishing those personal relationships,” Jacob says. “And then you do the exercises, you do the hands-on, and you see this person who couldn’t essentially take care of themselves now become independent again at home. It’s definitely the coolest part of the job.”

When COVID-19 struck, their day-to-day jobs began to change. Dana says she began to travel to areas further away to provide therapy to patients who had COVID-19. Safety precautions also increased, including the use of personal protective equipment.

“I think it was definitely more stressful because you know, a lot of times we knew we were going in to see COVID patients, patients that were recovering, that were in the hospital and transitioned home,” Dana says. “We were wearing a lot of gear with everything going in.”

Dana and Jacob both worried about bringing COVID-19 home to their families. Jacob had an extra stressor because his wife works as an intensive care nurse at UPMC Mercy.

“We were always nervous,” Jacob says. “We have an 8-, 5-, and 3-year-old. I was like, ‘OK, everybody’s telling us the kids are OK, but we don’t know.'”

But Dana and Jacob knew that their work was important and continued to visit their patients every day.

While they always helped their patients with other household chores, they sensed that those tasks became more important during the pandemic. Many of their patients were elderly and didn’t have other visitors. Whenever they could, they helped.

“I think that’s what made the home care realm a little bit more special during this time,” Dana says. “It wasn’t that we were really doing anything super crazy above and beyond, but the little things meant a lot more to people because they didn’t have anyone else that could do it.”

Jacob says they also offered reassurance to patients during an uncertain time.

“(We were) a nice, reliable education source, a calming source,” he says. “‘Hey, this is horrible, but we can do it together. And here are some things that we can do together to keep you safe.'”

Dana and Jacob are two members of a large network, and they said they were proud of the way their colleagues stepped up during the pandemic.

“The ultimate goal was to make sure that patients got taken care of the way they needed to get taken care of,” Dana says. “And I think all of my co-workers really stepped up and helped each other out when we needed to.”

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Nancy: ‘Our No. 1 Goal Was to Keep Them Safe and Happy’

After working at Sherwood Oaks for 35 years, Nancy jokes that she knows “where everything is hidden.”

The UPMC Senior Communities location offers both independent living and skilled nursing for seniors. As a housekeeping supervisor, Nancy cleans residents’ apartments and the common areas. She also helps with laundry and other tasks on the campus.

“I love my residents,” Nancy says. “I like the social interaction, and all our employees are all about the residents. We’re like family to them. They want to hear about us, and they tell us about themselves. That’s why I’ve stayed there for so long. It’s a family there.”

That became even more true during COVID-19.

To protect both residents and staff, visitation was restricted during COVID-19. Residents also had to stay in their rooms and avoid gathering in common spaces. Because of that, Nancy and her fellow employees often were the only interaction some residents had.

Nancy said the facility often looked like a “deserted zone” because of the protocols. But the employees tried to make it an easier experience for the residents. They gave individual residents items to brighten up their apartments or drew on the sidewalks to cheer them up.

“It’s just another role of trying to make it a little bit nicer for them,” she says. “Because you were the only contact with the outside world, you had to go a little bit further for them. Just take the time to talk to them and stuff like that.”

Some of the facility’s previous employees left during the pandemic, bringing extra responsibilities to Nancy and the other workers. They also adapted to other protocols, making sure the facility was as sanitized as possible at all times.

Nancy says she often worked 12-hour days, and she was worried about potentially bringing home COVID-19 to her family. But she continued coming to work every day knowing how important her work was.

“We still had to keep doing what we did because we still had to keep people safe,” Nancy says. “They still needed their rooms clean. They still needed their apartments cleaned. A lot of people have a hard time getting around, getting their trash to the trash room, stuff like that. I never thought about not working during the pandemic.

“We’re all in it together. Our No. 1 goal was to keep them safe and happy.”

James: ‘I’m Here with You’

James first came to UPMC Mercy as a chef. When the hospital created a concierge position just over five years ago, he was a perfect choice.

He works six days a week, getting to the hospital before 5 a.m., when the earliest surgeries begin. He doodles characters to create homemade get well cards for patients. And with a wide array of colorful outfits — matching ties, pocket squares, and socks in various shades of green, purple, orange, and more — he’s hard to miss.

“When people come in, I set that precedent,” he says. “As soon as they come through that threshold across my bridge, they see a smiling face, a warm environment to greet them, to help ease some of that stress they’re feeling.”

In normal times, the hustle and bustle of the hospital meant James was greeting people all day. But when COVID-19 hit, that all changed.

UPMC restricted visitation inside its hospitals to prevent the spread of COVID-19. On top of that, James was adjusting to other COVID-19 prevention tactics like mask-wearing and entrance screening.

“It was very strange,” James says. “There was anxiousness because of the COVID. There were always other things to do because of COVID: putting new signs up and shutting down different entrances.

“It was different. It was a lot slower pace, but it was more tension because of the COVID that was looming over everything and everyone.”

James said his supervisor, Mike, was key in letting him know of the changing COVID-19 guidelines.

Although James admits to feeling anxious about COVID-19, he compartmentalized those fears while at work.

“We’re here to make sure these people understand that we’re going to be there for them, regardless of what we’re going through at home,” he says.

The hospitals have begun to open again, with patients now permitted to have a support person with them. The hustle and bustle is beginning to return.

However, COVID-19 isn’t gone yet. And James — like Dana, Jacob, and Nancy, and like the thousands of other employees working across UPMC — knows he has an important role in helping to keep the community safe.

“Tragedy either separates you or brings you closer,” James says. “When something as devastating as this happens, it brought me closer to my guests — I’m here in this hospital, I’m here with you. We’re going to get through this together, and that’s the way it is.”

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.